The Tango Police – CNET

This is part of CNET’s Technically Literate series, which presents original works of short fiction with unique perspectives on technology.

I’d always loved those old dancers — found them sweet, even inspiring — until the night they attacked us. For years, I’d lingered at the edge of the plaza on Saturday evenings to watch them, men and women in their 70s and 80s, so passionate about the tango that they faithfully gathered to dance to the silken sounds of the Golden Age, breathing to the pulse of tango, priests of movement under the darkening Montevideo sky. Somehow they flung aside arthritis, hip pain, joint pain, the small afflictions Uruguayan seniors never ceased to catalog to anyone who’d listen, and freed their limbs to dance. Or maybe I had it wrong; maybe they didn’t dance without pain, but through it, in spite of it, ignoring those signals of the body in favor of more pressing ones that make you supple, make you new, make life spark up in hooks and slides and turns.

They were skilled as hell, and I envied them that, as well as their tie to the past, their memories of the times when those retro photographs of big bands and slicked-back hair weren’t retro at all. When you’ve been dancing the tango for 70 years, it belongs to you, down to the marrow of your bones. Or so I imagined. And I wanted that too, one — wanted that depth of connection with the tango that came only from decades of dancing. Though at 27 I still had a long way to go. When I first got obsessed with dancing, I came often to the plaza just to study their moves and style. I was never the only one; everybody knew about the viejitos of the plaza. Not tourists, though. They never came. These old people danced in a classic style, a kitchen style, without any of the flashy stage moves reserved for foreigners. I knew all about what foreigners wanted to see, as from early on I’d danced in plazas for loose change, both here in Uruguay and across the river in Buenos Aires, all dolled up in a tight dress and a gimmicky red flower in my hair. I could give them their fantasy. I could give them a show that satisfied. But these dancers, the originals, they owned the tango, they were the tango. Or so I’d thought.

It was a beautiful April evening, warm and sultry, one of those fall days when it seemed that summer might stay around forever if you treated it right. Clara and I had just come from teaching a tango class — a nice supplement to my income as a preschool teacher, not much, but enough for an occasional beer with friends — and we were in a good mood. It was six o’clock, the sky still shone blue, and downtown Montevideo hummed with people. We put off getting on the bus home, wanting to walk down Avenida 18 de Julio, the city’s main artery, and enjoy a bit of bustle. That’s when we heard the strains of an old tango gliding from the plaza.

“The viejitos! Clara said. “I haven’t watched them in forever.”

“Me neither.”

“We should go see. This might be one of their last times.”

“Don’t say that.” When the weather turned cold, the old people stopped coming. Their disappearance was an early sign of winter. “With a sky like this?”

“You never know anymore. Climate change.”

“Climate change,” I said mournfully, with exaggerated pain, with the voice my aunts used to bemoan the weather. “Cliiiiiiimate change!”

She laughed. “It’s serious, you know.”

“Of couuuuurse it is!”

She laughed again. Clara had a laugh like copper pots colliding. She was my best friend, and had been for eight years, since we met at the University and she took me to my first tango lesson. And this last year, when I met Raquel and felt like I was shattering and soaring into flight at the same time, no one had stood by me more than Clara.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go to the plaza.”

Most of the couples were dancing, 20, maybe 25 of them, scattered across the cobblestones. At one edge sat the boom box from which the tangos played, at the other a microphone on a stand. All along the periphery, on benches and on the brick ledge, people sat and watched: children snacked on sweet bizcochos, mothers clutched overflowing plastic bags, couples passed the mate gourd back and forth or simply leaned against each other, taking in the sight. In the last year, this city had come to feel claustrophobic, too small, and I’d started dreaming aloud to Raquel about escaping somewhere, to Buenos Aires, even to Spain, finding work, starting over, weaving a life for us in a far-flung place where nobody knew who we were or gave a shit and all was perfect, and in the drunken glow of her naked body it all seemed possible — though Raquel would only laugh and say oh Sonia, how you talk and then I’d say you know I can do more than talk and that would be the end of words for a while — but moments like this one reconnected me to Montevideo, the only city in the world where this simple scene of pleasure could take place. This was home.

The song ended, and another began: “Mi Noche Triste,” as sung by the one and only Rosa Vidal, who had taken the stage in men’s clothing as far back as the 1920s, though nobody talked about that now. Nobody except Clara and me. We both loved her. We couldn’t resist her shining voice, and we started to sway against each other. Our hands slid together, pulsed gently, in time with the song, and then she turned toward me and we slid into a dance. She led. The air hummed, we glided, our legs in time, my steps hers, her turns mine, the world condensed, our bodies a flow, the flow a song, no puedo cerrar la puerta, porque dejándola abierta me —

The music stopped.

We looked up, surprised. One of the old men had turned off the boom box and was now stomping toward the microphone, face red and clenched, what was wrong with him?

He reached the microphone and turned to stare right at us. “Go away,” he said, too loudly. “Stop dancing like that or go away.”

The crowd had become quiet. Onlookers, viejitos unclasping from their partners, passersby on the sidewalk beyond the plaza — they all stared. At us.

“We don’t want any faggots or dykes here,” the man went on. His finger was in the air now, pointing emphatically at the sky. “No dykes! No faggots! This is not that sort of place. Such dancing is — not…not acceptable.”

There was a smattering of applause. I couldn’t move. The air itself seemed to cave in on me, collapsing unseen rubble over my head. Run, far away, run from these old people and their sudden menace. My arm was still around Clara’s shoulder and I stepped away, but Clara’s body followed me, she wouldn’t let me go. Her face had gone from stunned to something else, a mix of determination and fury. “You can’t do this,” she called out. “This is a public plaza.”

There was a slight rustle across the crowd, low mutters. Heads turned in anticipation toward the man.

“Get out of here,” he shouted, “before I call the police.”

How many eyes were on us now? Had the crowd thickened, come closer, threatened to block off all escape? I wasn’t thinking right, I couldn’t breathe. The bodies of these elders now pressed in on me, a danger, their anger a palpable thing that threatened to suffocate. “Clara,” I muttered. “Clara. I’ve got to get out of here.”

Clara looked torn, uncertain. Terrified of cutting through the crowd without her, I pulled on her arm in what I hoped was a forceful gesture. Finally, she relented, though as we cut through the crowd, arm in arm, she turned back to call out, “You’re the unacceptable one, sir!”

“Dyke!” the man shouted, his voice ringing through the microphone across the plaza, following us as we fled.

Her body tensed and I knew she longed to turn back and confront him again, but she didn’t. She held back. For me.

María stared at her husband at the microphone. He stood frozen, finger still pointing ridiculously at the sky. It was embarrassing, for him to show this side of himself in public, to come so close to losing control. She could understand his reasoning, though the two girls hadn’t seemed bothersome to her; she’d just thought they were having fun and maybe waiting for their boyfriends. In the old days, it was just fine for two women to dance together when a man wasn’t free — not at a milonga, perhaps, but in a living room, sure. Arnoldo knew that. But what? Now with this gay rights thing it wasn’t all right anymore? Were they really dykes, nice girls like that, with their pretty long hair? Either way, she was mortified by her husband’s lack of composure, the way spittle had leapt from his mouth when he said faggot. What a relief that the girls had given up and walked away.

Arnoldo watched them disappear down the avenue. Only when they were out of sight did he lower his arm.

“Well,” he said into the microphone, “that’s that.”

There was a bit more applause, feeble and brief. No one spoke. The air crackled uncomfortably. But surely no one was too surprised: they’d been dancing together for years, and everyone knew Arnoldo’s temper, as well as his convictions, that he voted for the Blanco party, cheered for the Nacional soccer team, and didn’t like faggots getting married. Some agreed, some didn’t, but everyone relied on Arnoldo to keep the dances going, to begin and end things, to haul his boom box the eight blocks from his apartment to the plaza. Ever since their only son Romero had left the country, these tango nights had been a central project for Arnoldo, a way to stave off sadness.

Arnoldo went to the boom box and turned the music back on. Rosa Vidal’s voice poured out to them again, rising on the swell of violins and bandoneon.

How stupid of him, to pretend that the evening wasn’t ruined — but she played along. They’d been married for 62 years and she knew when to press him, when to coddle him, and when to let him carry her as he did now, across the flagstones, in an empty dance. The moves were still right, but they’d gone hollow inside. The other couples were the same. There was no escaping it: those girls had ruined their evening. Yes, Arnoldo had embarrassed himself, but if those girls hadn’t come then none of it would have happened. After two more songs, the Vincettis left, and as they were giving their goodbye kisses other couples gathered their things as well, saying something about being tired, about an early dinner, about the sudden cold of the wind.

“Cowards,” Arnoldo said later as they were packing up their things.

“Well, it’s not their fault.”

“You’re saying it’s mine?” His voice rose sharply, like the voice of a plaintive child.

“No, of course not,” she said soothingly. “It’s the girls’ fault.”

“Yes! It’s the girls’ fault. Did you see them! Next time, you know, I will call the police –“

She half-listened as he went on, thinking of the hot chocolate she’d make him when they arrived home, a sure comfort to her husband even on warm nights. It had worked to calm him for over 60 years — when he’d come home from work hating his boss; when the dictatorship had weighed down on them like a leaden sky; when Romero first announced that he was moving overseas — and surely, now, hot chocolate could do the trick and wash this little incident away.

I hadn’t meant to fall for Raquel. I met her at a friend’s party not long after breaking up with my boyfriend. We talked all night and while she seemed genuinely interested in my words, I would have said anything to get close to her mane of curls. I wanted to lose myself there, in the forest of her, reduced to an animal, all scent and burrowing. I was her first woman. She was my first too, not counting Estela in high school, who had me in a fever for months until that disastrous night when I tried to go further and she balked and never spoke to me again. “We’re not lesbians,” Raquel liked to say, and occasionally I’d argue with her but more often I’d shut her up with a kiss. When I told my mother about Raquel, she was silent for a long time and then said, “please don’t tell your father. And your grandparents. Your grandparents! They’d die of a heart attack.” I’d granted her request with my grandparents, but not my father, who responded by not speaking to me anymore. Sunday lunches with the extended family had become so uncomfortable that I’d started leaving early or skipping them altogether.

As for Raquel, delectable Raquel, the mesmerizing girl from posh Carrasco, she couldn’t tell her parents, or so she said, because they’d never understand, because it would crush them, because she’d lose her spending allowance, which, I gathered from the dinners she took me out to and the clothes she wore, was sizable. I didn’t give a shit about her clothes, I liked them best when they pooled on the floor of the bedroom, empty and still warm from that body that gave off heat I’d never known existed on this earth.

My friends didn’t like Raquel. They found her snobby and cold and it had nothing to do with her being a woman, no really, they all swore it up and down. I tried to believe them. I couldn’t believe them. Their boyfriends were all perfect? And they couldn’t just be happy for me? With Raquel I’d discovered things that expanded my world, or expanded my ability to stand in the world, things that made her body sing, turned the world inside out and set it glowing. I was never more alive than in those moments when Raquel melted and broke open, an exalted thing. Was it love? I didn’t know. I didn’t care. It was real, whatever it was, more real than my life before it — and it came at a cost. A perpetual danger of falling. Like now. Walking in silence with Clara, still shaking from the confrontation in the plaza. Her presence a buttress against the void.

“I’m sorry,” I finally said.

She squeezed my arm.

“I couldn’t stay — I just couldn’t.”

“I know,” she said.

We walked on. Every stranger we passed seemed hostile to me now.

“It’s not your fault, you know. He couldn’t have known.”

“I don’t know,” I said, wondering whether he’d seen something on me. Some translucent slime. I hadn’t danced with Clara like a lover, I didn’t think of her that way. She’d made it clear early on, laughing, that she couldn’t help her predilection for men. But still — could he have noticed something wrong with me?

“This isn’t about anything you did,” Clara went on. “It’s that awful man, his bigotry. As if he could declare who gets to dance the tango. As if it belonged to him, and not to everyone!”

She was getting herself all whipped up. Our bus arrived at its stop just as we were approaching, and we got on. The car was crowded, and we stood together about midway. There was a festive mood among the riders, on their way to their Saturday nights, buoyed by the cumbia pouring from the driver’s radio.

I thought we’d dropped the subject, but Clara picked it up again. “You know what? That was a violation of our rights.”

“Sure,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster.

“We have to do something. Protest this. I’m going to write a letter to city hall.”

“Maybe we should just forget it.”

“How can you say that? This is 2015, for God’s sake, gay marriage is legal in this country, this isn’t the ’50s! This isn’t Saudi Arabia! Or the United States!”

At that, I smiled. In our circle of friends, it was a source of pride that, for all that the United States was supposed to be the most advanced country in the Americas, for all that it purported to be the example to everybody in the South, we, little Uruguay, had arrived first at advances like legalizing marijuana and gay marriage. Still: that didn’t mean we had it all ironed out. Yes, in the past two years couples had gone and gotten married, an amazing thing. But so many people still lived in the closet. Law was one thing; culture was another. You can’t legislate people’s minds.

“There are always going to be jerks like that man,” I said, thinking of my grandparents (though would they have yelled? in public, like that? I pushed the thought away). “We should just ignore him.”

“Are you serious? That was discrimination.” She stared at me. “Sonia, you don’t have to live like that.”

I stared back at her. Somewhere behind me, a small child had started arguing with her mother, and their voices formed a light fugue against the other murmurs, the cumbia beat, the rumble of the bus.

“We’re going to fight back,” Clara said.

“How?”

“On Facebook. On the streets. Everywhere. On Twitter.”

The child’s voice behind me rose to a wail. I’d just started using Facebook and I’d never been on Twitter, but Clara had a way with them, down to the breezy way the names rolled from her tongue, Feys – buk, Twee – terr, as if they were exotic plants she knew just how to water.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Clara grinned at me, her anger ceding to a new enthusiasm. “We’re going to protest until that plaza belongs to everyone.”

María was washing dishes when she first heard the news on the radio. It was two days after the incident. Arnoldo was out at the corner butcher shop, picking up supplies for dinner. She was listening to El Payaso y El Choclo’s show, the hosts’ voices so familiar now that they’d become a pleasant irritant, like a pebble you leave in your shoe. They were talking about some young people who’d filed a complaint at city hall. Apparently, El Payaso crowed, audibly enjoying himself, according to these activists, two young women were harassed in La Plaza del Entrevero last Saturday evening by a group of elderly tango dancers, because the girls were dancing with each other. It seems that these tangueros called them “dykes” —

Dykes! El Choclo exclaimed.

That’s not my word, mind you, those seniors started it, the hooligans.

So were they actually dykes? That’s what I want to know. Did they put on a good show or what?

It must have gotten pretty wild, because the dancing seniors threatened to call the police.

¡Epa! Poor things, all that girl-on-girl could give them a heart attack.

Well, it seems the girl-on-girl is just getting started. The activists are calling for a protest in the plaza and they’ve started a hashtag, #unacceptabletango, and city hall put out a Twitter this morning to say —

Put out a Twitter? It’s called a tweet, you dumb-ass!

All right, fine, look, a tweet, I don’t know this stuff, I’m a radio guy, have been for years. This radio twitters more than enough for me. But anyway, city hall made a tweet today that said they are considering the activists’ demands.

So what are their demands?

That these senior hooligans either include same-sex couples or have their permit revoked.

Seems like quite a punishment, doesn’t it, for these poor old people, just trying to enjoy their tango? You know I’ve seen them out there, on the plaza, they’ve been going for years and they dance beautifully. They keep tradition alive.

They do.

There’s nothing like the tango.

So who would have guessed that they’d turn into a marauding gang, roaming our streets, more dangerous than the crackheads on the rise in our city? Why isn’t city hall doing Twitters about that?

María turned off the radio and, in one quick motion, picked it up and threw it as hard as she could away, away, away from her. It banged against the wall and floor and then went silent. Sunlight slashed in through the window and coated it with gold. The room closed in on her. Crackheads. Gang. Senior hooligans. No. She didn’t know what a hashtag was, this thing those girls had started, how many computers it went to, how it traveled, its shape or purpose, and this only made it more threatening, like an eel under the surface of the sea.

When Arnoldo came home, she sat him down in the rocking chair to tell him the news. It was the same rocking chair her mother had given them when they’d become parents, where she’d rocked Romero in the middle of the night, exhausted, astonished by his tiny, demanding body, a lifetime ago. One day, she’d told her son as he grew up, I’m going to rock your babies in this same chair. It still cut her inside that things hadn’t gone that way. As she tried to tell Arnoldo about the radio show, his face grew slack, then wide-eyed and, finally, pinched and tense. Like a hunted animal, she thought.

“They can’t,” he said. “They can’t! They can’t possibly take our permit away. We’re the ones who have the right to complain. They were at our plaza!”

“Of course they were,” she said, and his need for her, the pleading in his eyes, was almost comforting. “It’ll all sort itself out. You’ll see.”

That evening, the phone rang several times. Arnoldo spoke to the Vincettis, Pablo Ramírez and the Kubartowskis about the news, comparing notes and sharing outrage. The Vincettis were particularly well-informed, as they possessed their very own electronic tablet, for video-calling their daughter and grandchildren in New York. María and Arnoldo had occasionally made video Skype calls at the Cyber Café, to talk to Romero and his children, but only occasionally, as they had to make a time when everybody was free and the children were not at soccer or violin or whatnot that the children did, they were always running off to something, and in any case, Skype was laborious for María, she always needed the help of the Cyber staff to make the connection. Technology confused her, made her feel disoriented, as if she’d just stopped spinning and the world still swung around her, moving on a secret axis that had shifted when she wasn’t looking. The Vincettis had made more of an effort. They looked at the Twitter while Arnoldo sat waiting on the other end of the telephone line. It was true, they said. There was a hashtag. It made it so that people all over the world could see what you wrote. People had written messages of support to the girls, from Argentina, Colombia, Spain, even, if you could believe it, from rural towns in Uruguay itself.

“María,” Arnoldo whispered in the dark that night, as she pretended to be asleep, “if men and women can’t dance the tango in peace, what is going to happen to this country?”

The next day, Arnoldo got calls from El País and El Observador. He gave both journalists unrepentant quotes — “we will never,” “our traditions” — that left him buoyed, his outrage stoked and fanned. And then, the following morning, city hall laid down its verdict, in a headline splashed across both newspapers. Their permit would be revoked unless they agreed to welcome all couples and the man who’d shouted at the dancers agreed to attend an antidiscrimination workshop.

“It’s the dictatorship all over again,” Arnoldo fumed. He’d gone out early to buy the papers, and he and María now sat over them drinking mate in the kitchen. An autumn storm was coming in, and outside the wind howled. “Telling us what to do, rounding people up for no reason, sending them to concentration camps — now they’re coming for the heterosexuals.”

This seemed a bit absurd to her; it was a class, after all, and even if listening to gay people criticize you might sound like a form of torture, she hated it when people lightly made comparisons to the dictatorship years. Her best friend Iris’ daughter had been kidnapped from her home and imprisoned for years. When she came out, in ’85, she was a shell of the lively girl she’d once been, not yet 40 with less than half her teeth. But María bit back the impulse to correct Arnoldo. She could see that he was terrified. Something was crumbling for him, some hold on the world, which was changing beyond recognition. She thought of an article she’d read once about the disappearing polar ice caps, with its photograph of a great white polar bear stranded on a floating slab of ice. Nothing is forever, she thought with a shock. Everything — everything — can be lost. A crushing sadness overcame her.

“I’m not going to that — that — gay gulag of theirs,” he muttered. “Even if they try to drag me away.”

“They wouldn’t do that,” she said. “It’ll all blow over. You’ll see.”

He looked up at her now, and she was astonished to see tears threatening to fall from his eyes. “María,” he said. “Will we ever get our plaza back?”

She had no answer for him. She had no answer for herself. She sat in silence as the wind rattled the windows in their frames.

“How could you take this from the viejitos?” my mother said on the phone.

“Mamá, I’m getting ready to go.”

“To the protest?”

“Yes.” I still couldn’t quite believe what Clara had accomplished. She’d spent the week on her computer, furiously responding to organizers, gay-rights activists, journalists, bureaucrats from city hall, and, above all, angry tweets and Facebook comments, messages from all over the world. She answered everyone. She didn’t sleep. And now the protest dance, the Unacceptable Tango, was about to begin. I’d watched the whole thing in a daze, amazed by the responses and by Clara’s passion for making the world better for people other than herself. For people like me. I had to go to the protest dance, of course I was going, but my excitement was tinged with dread at the thought of such raw exposure, like dancing with your skin peeled off.

Mamá sighed heavily. “You’ve taken away their only happiness.”

“We’re not taking the tango from anyone,” I said, thinking, with a pang, or at least we didn’t mean to. “We just want it to be for everyone.”

“I’m so embarrassed that you’re involved with this. Now all the neighbors know.”

“None of the articles say that I’m gay — just that I was there. Clara isn’t even my girlfriend –“

“You know what, I don’t want to hear about your girlfriend. There you go again, only thinking of yourself. Can you imagine what this has done to your father?”

It was no use. I mumbled something conciliatory to rush her off the phone, then called Raquel. “I’m trying one more time,” I said.

“I’ve told you, I’m not coming.”

“For me? Will you come for me?”

“There are going to be cameras, Sonia. It’ll be on the news.”

“So?”

“I have to say it?”

“Your parents.” Your fucking parents. “So what? It’s not like only gay people are going — it’s for everyone. Please, Raquel. It means a lot to me.”

“I can’t.”

“I understand.”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you, mi amor –“

“I understand that you don’t give a shit unless I’m giving you an orgasm.”

“Sonia!”

I hung up. I felt electric. What had I done? Had I blown it with Raquel? Did I want to blow it? I didn’t know. On the bus ride to the plaza, I kept waiting for my cell phone to vibrate with the arrival of a text, but none came. Stop thinking about it. Forget her. I was late, the protest had already begun, I was a bad activist, always had been, I needed to be there so the organizers weren’t alone out there, a paltry group facing the television crews.

I rose as the bus pulled up at the Plaza del Entrevero.

The doors opened on a massive crowd.

There were hundreds of people — never had the plaza been so full. They had all come for this? For us? Something that had lodged in me, a kind of bullet, started to shake loose. Clara, where was Clara? I descended into the crowd, searching. Couples everywhere, pressed close to each other, women with women, men with men, young and old, some dressed in sparkling gowns and some in worn coats and winter scarves, most of them straight as far as I could tell, not couples necessarily, just people, ordinary people, smiling and dancing. Rainbow flags hung from the trees. Tango music boomed from high-end speakers, hauled in by our DJ friends who’d brought their turntables too, and for a second I was sorry for the old dancers of the plaza, with their dusty old boom box and their cassette tapes, making do as if it were still the ’80s. My phone vibrated in my pocket and I pulled it out quickly, holding my breath, but the text wasn’t from Raquel. It was from Clara. Are you here? I’m over by the sculpture. I texted back here, coming and continued through the crowd, the stunning crowd, this was not a protest but a celebration — of what? of whom? and was it real? — and that was when I saw her: Lucía Topolansky, who until a couple of months ago had been our first lady, wife of President Mujica, congresswoman, former guerilla fighter from the old days, who’d spent 13 years imprisoned by the dictatorship, a stout woman with short gray hair and sparkling eyes, she had to be 70 now, and she was not with her husband, she danced with a woman about her age who was laughing in her ear. Lucía Topolansky laughed back — a straight woman, a leader, dancing with all her heart. If she was here then it was true: the plaza was not the same plaza anymore, or else it was the same and we’d never fully understood it before. I wondered what it would take for me to become as bold as Lucía. I had leagues to go. I longed to ask her. I longed to go up to her and bow like the gentlemen in old-style films, may I have this dance? But I was much too shy. Instead, I stood in silence, drinking in the sight of her as she danced, speaking volumes with her body, gracing the plaza, baptizing the flagstones with each step.

Illustrations by Roman Muradov

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